Monday, June 15, 2015

Black like she: Rachel Dolezal
and what all this says about us

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
                — Joan Didion, The White Album

RACIAL MATHEMATICS according to America has never been a matter of 2+2. The highly tangled nature of our politics, our history and our personal experiences makes navigating race a constant challenge. Just when you think you know what’s what ... you find out you don’t.

Witness the matter of Rachel Dolezal, recently outed as a white woman passing for African American. In our heads-is-tails world, her case has called into question some of the old pieties we’ve grown comfortable with vis-à-vis race. In a perversely inspired series of events, we’re back at another crossroads of our national identity powered in part by our old racial stereotypes, and our expectations that what we see dovetails with reality. It ain’t necessarily so, and when it’s not, when the facts run counter to our assumptions ... things get interesting.

Dolezal, a 37-year-old professor of Africana studies at the Africana Education Department at Eastern Washington University in Washington state, has been the focus of attention on mainstream and social media for claiming to be a black woman, when in reality she’s not one. In the past ten years or so, Dolezal has orchestrated a masquerade of outsize proportions, perming and curling her born-blond hair and marrying a black man, then allegedly asserting that one of her adopted black brothers is really her son, and going so far as to attain the role of the president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Wash.

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Her white biological parents, Ruthanne and Lawrence, had enough of this and outed her recently; their disclosure led to the furor over Dolezal’s deception, and played a hand in her resignation from the NAACP post earlier today.

Dolezal, who has been chairwoman of Spokane's Office of Police Ombudsman Commission, covered all the ethnic bases when she apparently identified herself as white, black and American Indian on an application for the volunteer position. In a statement Thursday, Spokane Mayor David Condon and city council president Ben Stuckart said the city is investigating whether she violated city policies by not being truthful about her ethnicity on that application.

We shouldn’t be surprised how this can happen in Washington, a state with about 240,000 black residents – 3.74 percent of the state’s total population, according to 2010 Census figures. It may have been harder to pull off this charade in a state with a bigger African American population.

As it is, what makes the Dolezal case so unsettling, for African Americans and for American society alike, is what it says about how the palettes of our various cultures are more interchangeable than we thought, and maybe more than we’re comfortable with.

For black Americans, could their existence, the cherished particulars of their culture, be taken any more for granted? For white Americans, can there be any greater sign of seismic social change than what happens when one in the majority tries to (literally) assume the face of the minority?

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FOR GENERATIONS, aspects of black identity in music, fashion and the common vernacular have been borrowed, tweaked and homogenized for use by a wider, more dilutive mass popular culture. That’s been happening for as long as you’ve been around.

But this latest fetishization of black identity forces us to ask some tough questions about what race is in the first place. We’ve been told for years that race, per se, is an artificial social construct, more a matter of attitude than of anthropology.

So if that’s true, if race as we think we know it doesn’t even exist, how tough can we be on Dolezal for appropriating the tropes and referentials of African Americans?

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Race, of course, does exist, as a practical and working everyday truth, if not one that conforms with science. For Dolezal, though, this is more than lifelong cosplay. To her, this has been existential, with her absorbing the nuances and subtleties of a culture and a people she says she respects.

Yeah, she got a job at the NAACP, probably taking the position away from a real black person who needed it just as bad, or worse. But however superficial you think Dolezal’s vision quest might be, you can’t get away from the core fact in the matter: In her pursuit of a better life with more opportunities, a white woman in 21st-century America took on the identity of a black woman.

This was no Halloween prank, no silly Julianne Hough one-off. For a decade, Rachel Dolezal tried to assume the culture and essence of an African American woman, and did so with at least an outward commitment that suggested it was not a holiday lark but a change at the core of who she is — a change announcing that, for her at least, white womanhood ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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ANGELA SCHWENDIMAN, an Africana studies professor and a colleague of Dolezal at Eastern Washington, told NBC News that Dolezal has “embraced the philosophy, the ideology, the culture. She knows it better than a lot of black people, believe me. And that is her. I think she was only trying to match how she felt on the inside with her outside.”

This example of someone passing for black has meaningful and maybe even profound implications for our racially-torn society. In no small part because of social media’s reaction to the Dolezal disclosures, this will resonate in the culture of the workplace, in the halls of Congress, and anywhere else identities cross paths in modern America.

It’s already got journalists examining similar cases. In a Saturday piece in The Daily Beast, reporter Pat Blanchfield writes on a similar situation:

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“Exactly twenty years ago, readers across Europe were absorbed by a remarkable, increasingly rare literary event: the revelation of a previously unknown Holocaust memoir. Published in German in 1995 as Bruchstücke: Aus einer Kindheit 1939—1948, a slim, hard-hitting first-person account offered a new, horrifying perspective on the Holocaust — that of an extremely young child, a Latvian named Binjamin Wilkomirski. Wilkomirski’s story, told in surreal, dreamlike patches punctuated by moments of stupefying violence, was riveting. Wilkomirski’s first memory, he claimed, was of witnessing his father being beaten to death.

“Traveling between the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek, he claimed to have seen babies gnawing off their own frozen fingers, SS guards mutilating the penises of young boys, and more.

“The account was met with considerable acclaim. ... The only problem with Wilkomirski’s testimony is that it was full of lies. ...”

After an investigation, Blanchfield reports, it was found that “Wilkomirski was not Latvian, nor was he Jewish, nor had he ever been interned in a concentration camp. His name wasn’t even Binjamin Wilkomirski, it was Bruno Grosjeans. He had been born illegitimately to a Swiss Protestant woman in 1941, lived for years in a Swiss orphanage, and was adopted by a wealthy family in Zurich ... ‘Binjamin Wilkomirski’ was an entirely fabricated identity, his story, pure fiction …”

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SO HOW far as a modern society are we prepared to go to reputationally eviscerate someone who, for whatever personal, emotional, social or clinical reasons, decides to adopt the identity of someone completely different?

Because for all the thunderclap impact the Dolezal matter is having now, and as the Wilkomirski matter indicates, this is nothing new. Back in the 1940’s, Mezz Mezzrow, a white jazz clarinetist who played with such early titans of jazz as Benny Carter and Sidney Bechet, married a black woman and declared himself to be a “voluntary Negro.”

The songwriter and bandleader praised by many as the father of modern R&B was a Greek American born John Alexander Veliotes. In time, Veliotes would absorb the particularities of black life and culture; he’d start his own band reflecting his passion for African American music. He’d discover such greats as Etta James and Jackie Wilson, and he would declare himself “black by persuasion.”

“I wouldn’t leave black culture to go to heaven. It’s richer, more rewarding and fulfilling for me,” he said once, using the name the world would know him by: Johnny Otis.

Personal reinvention didn’t begin with Rachel Dolezal.

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A few weeks ago, social media was on fire over the transformation of Bruce Jenner, the one-time Olympic gold-medal-winning wonder, into Caitlin Jenner, by way of hormones, cosmetic surgery, a stunning physical makeover and personal counseling. If society makes allowances for a woman trapped in the body of a man, as was the case with Jenner, why’s it such a problematic leap to think that a black woman could be trapped in the body of a white woman?

OK, that’s probably over the top. Jenner’s transformation has been seemingly truthful, organic and at times deeply compelling. A lot about Dolezal’s escapade reeks of being a cry for attention, more than one for help. This is identity as a purely strategic phenomenon.

Maybe. What Dolezal did over a long period of time isn’t that different in its situationality from code-switching, the practice (common to black Americans) of tweaking vocal inflections, conversational nuances and registers, contextualizing for a particular audience, workplace scenario or personal encounter. President Obama has done it masterfully since 2008 — changing his rhetorical style and linguistic patterns, speaking to a black audience in Selma, Ala., one way, talking to citizens of Iowa or New Hampshire another way, taking on a whole nutha persona in the Rose Garden of the White House.

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THIS ISN’T making excuses for Dolezal’s actions; it’s an attempt to put those actions into their proper, broader social context. It’s necessary to ask where we draw that absolute, uncrossable line on assuming a different identity. As a culture, we’ve been doing that for years — not so much drawing lines as obliterating them, championing the idea that you can transform yourself, you can change the way you are, you don’t have to accept the way things are — whatever “things are” may mean to you.

We’re the target of workout gear makers and athletic-equipment marketers. We’re the object of emails and commercials that promote the chance to widen our professional horizons, inviting us to embark us on new careers in automotive repair, computer programming and insurance sales. All of them ready to help us build or rebuild the basis of our own inner narratives. The stories we need to live.

The self-improvement industrial complex (coming to a wave of late-night infomercials near you) is alive and well, a pillar of the American economy, a pillar ably supported by the power of Hollywood — that kernel of our wider, celebrity-besotted culture; that place where embroidery, expansion, embellishment of one’s reality aren’t just tolerated, they’re expected.

Rachel Dolezal told a story. Guess what? We tell ourselves stories every day.

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Setting aside for now the deeply racially cynical aspects of the Rachel Dolezal story and its more clinical dimensions (her not-so-delicate imitation of life will likely be the subject of psychoanalytical case studies into the future), there’s a freakable teachable moment here for everybody. We’ve bumped unwittingly into one of those occasions when the seemingly perverse anomaly we notice in someone else is very much within us, our society, our way of life, right here and now.

In the world according to Rachel Dolezal, how a search for self-realization was conducted apparently didn’t matter. In the world according to reality ... it doesn’t matter to us as much as we think.

And in the world according to identity ... we are all mental cases. We are, each and all, in search of ourselves.

Image credits: Dolezal: KREM-TV. Hough: via The Wrap. Mezzrow: William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress (public domain). "Fragments" book cover: © 1996 Schocken. Jenner: © Annie Leibovitz. Vanity Fair cover: © 2015 Conde Nast.


  1. Exceptional, reflective piece Michael. Your gift of being able to state topics so clearly, to the core of being human, continues to challenge my (so called) beliefs. Thanks for motivating me to be more real in my everyday life!

    1. This is one of the best reviews I ever got. Thanks man

  2. Right on. Reminds me of the truism about everybody talking about the weather but no one doing anything about it -- well, when we finally do something about the weather, all we get from Al Gore are complaints. Race as construct, gender as construct -- are these just THEORIES, or can they apply to real brick and mortar flesh and blood life? And yay for the shout-out to Mezz Mezzrow, who turned on or at least supplied the 50s NYC jazz community with weed, and yay for the mention of Johnny Otis, too.

    1. Many thanks Hack, glad you enjoyed it. Yes, Mezz Mezzrow and Johnny Otis help put this in its right historical place. We've been telling ourselves stories, and reinventing ourselves, since this country became this country. This case is just one more.


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